By Christina Ramsay, special education teacher
One of the reasons I became a teacher was to empower students to recognize their strengths and find their passion. I start with this brief reflection on why I became a teacher because, in order for us to make the most of this year of learning, we must ground ourselves in intention. We must shift away from the negative associations that have surrounded education recently and remember why we do this work. Readers, I haven’t met all of you, but I’m pretty sure you have a similar goal of wanting to empower students, so let’s make this school year one focused on learning gains, empowerment, and joy.
We know students learn best when they feel confident and enjoy their learning experiences, but how do we create spaces that embody joy? How do we empower students to step into their greatness and lean into productive struggle throughout their learning process? How do we assist students in celebrating all of their growth and successes? How do we make space and time to reclaim joy in our hectic, jammed-packed school schedules?
Creating learning spaces that celebrate learning gains — big and small — is one way we can plan for a year that focuses on empowerment and joy. Let’s create learning spaces that provide students with opportunities to recognize their strengths, build their confidence, and appreciate the learning process.
How do we plan for a year of learning gains?
One way we can lift up our students and prepare for a year of learning gains is to plan out opportunities to collect student work across the school year. There’s something powerful about having students look at the work they completed across a unit and select the pieces they are most proud of, then placing those pieces in a portfolio (physical or digital). (Checklists can be provided to support students in the process of selecting portfolio pieces.) A part of empowering others is helping them discover their own strengths. The process of building a portfolio during the school year is one way to assist students in recognizing their successes as well as their growth.
Intertwined in this process of collecting students’ “wow pieces” is the work of reflection and goal-setting. It would be beneficial to give students time and scaffolds to reflect on their progress. Students’ reflections could be in written form or a recording (using a tool like Flip, for example). Having students curate collections of their work across the school year can help solidify our intention to celebrate learning gains of all sizes.
Some students may need support in seeing the greatness in their work. As a special education teacher, I have worked with students who, because of the difficulty they experience throughout the writing process, see their work as “not good,” or “terrible.” I realized I needed to find a way to build up their confidence and change their self-image as students. Thus, during a writing conference, I would look over their writing with them and talk up a piece, pointing out several things they did well.
Then, on a star-shaped sticky note, I would write “My Best Work (so far)” and have the student place the star sticky note on their work. I would then place their work in a frame on their desk or in the writing center. Students would share with the rest of the class why that particular piece was their best work to date and the class was invited to refer to that piece if they wanted to try out a similar technique in their next assignment. This is one way to support students who need help seeing their greatness and is also a part of our work of creating learning communities that celebrate success. I’ve also seen teachers who have wall space dedicated to their students’ best work, which gets updated throughout the school year.
Besides identifying opportunities to have students reflect and celebrate their growth, another way to prepare for a year of learning gains is to begin the school year with a focus on having a growth mindset. The term “growth mindset” comes from Carol Dweck’s research on students’ beliefs about failure and learning:
“A growth mindset means that you believe your intelligence and talents can be developed over time. A fixed mindset means that you believe intelligence is fixed — so if you’re not good at something, you might believe you’ll never be good at it.”
From my experience teaching about growth mindset to my first-graders, third-graders, and fifth-graders, it is very empowering. I have had students stop themselves when they are about to say, “I can’t do this!,” or “This is impossible!,” and instead say, “Oh no, I’m having a fixed mindset. I can’t do it yet. Let me try another strategy.”
Helping them reframe their thinking to see themselves as life-long students with the ability to grow is vital to getting them to love learning. If we can create learning spaces that celebrate trying, making mistakes, and embodying a growth mindset, we can ensure our students will join us in celebrating all kinds of learning gains.
Here are some of my favorite books for teaching a growth mindset:
- Bubble Gum Brain by Julia Cook (she also has an activity book)
- Your Fantastic Elastic Brain: A Growth Mindset Book for Kids to Stretch and Shape Their Brains by JoAnn Deak, PhD
- The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes: A Growth Mindset Book for Kids to Promote Self Esteem by Mark Pett
- The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires
Habits of Mind
I have been fortunate to work at a school that partnered with Metamorphosis, a provider of content coaching for teachers, coaches, and administrators. Their coaches taught us the value of teaching “Habits of Mind” at the beginning of the school year. By teaching our students these skills, such as perseverance and thinking flexibly, we can help students understand strategies that will assist them throughout the learning process.
One of my former students was adamant his go-to strategies were the only ways to solve math problems. On a day we focused on persisting and thinking flexibly to consider alternate ways to solve a non-routine problem, his beliefs were challenged. The only way to actually solve that day’s non-routine problem was to use trial-and-error and think about what did and did not work previously. By the end of our work in our Habits of Mind unit, my student had shifted his thinking.
During one of our reflection discussions, he explained that he used to think there was one way to solve math problems (using algorithms), but he now knew there could be multiple ways to approach a problem, and sometimes that included using reasoning skills. This was such a big moment for him, and one we celebrated as a class. As we worked throughout the school year, we would refer back to that moment and the lesson he shared with us.
I encourage you to look into the Habits of Mind and select three to five habits you think will be most beneficial for your learners. I used read-alouds to introduce the Habit of Mind, brainstorming what we could do to apply that habit, and then provided students with a rich task. I would set students up with the goal of demonstrating that habit as they worked on the task, and highlight students who were trying out the behaviors from the list we brainstormed as the class worked.
Making space and time to reclaim joy in our classrooms
Isadora Duncan once said, “I do not teach children. I give them joy.” When we aspire to co-create spaces of joy in our classroom, we are letting our students know they matter and that we care about their whole selves, not just their academic minds. When we find ways to incorporate their interests into our learning activities and school day, we make the process of learning enjoyable for them.
This past school year, I had a student who kept telling me he wasn’t a writer. I knew he loved Marvel superheroes, so I used clips from Marvel’s Avengers: Endgame to teach “show, not tell,” using small actions and dialogue. He was so engaged and committed during the writing period, he and his classmates didn’t want to go to lunch!
Some other ways I have worked at reclaiming joy in my classroom over the last two years are listed below:
- Morning meeting — this time is sacred, and we do not skip it.
- Daily appreciations and gratitude.
- Built-in time to laugh together during morning meetings or the time after recess.
- Countdowns give students something to look forward to. Examples include a special activity on Friday, a reading celebration, etc.
- Non-academic times — research shows small amounts of time to disconnect helps the brain process new learning (morning arrival, after recess, or Friday afternoons).
- STEAM activities help tap into creativity.
- Surprises — Adding the word “surprise” to the schedule can make a big difference, even if it’s something small like a fun read-aloud or learning how to make a paper airplane for 10 minutes.
- Passion projects — dedicating time to work on a project your students are interested in, such as making items to sell to raise money for the Wild Bird Fund or making posters about donating pajamas for the Scholastic Pajama Drive.
No matter what is going on in the world, let’s be the educators our students need to blossom this school year. Let’s build learning spaces to help students feel confident. There are so many ways to empower our students; I hope the few ideas I’ve presented help you create a year of joy and growth with your students. Wishing you a great start to your school year.
About the Author
This guest blog post was written by Christina Ramsay, a special education teacher in Brooklyn, New York. She is passionate about teaching and social justice and seeks to empower her students as well as help them discover their strengths and talents.